Art and the Blockchain
The blockchain is a decentralised infrastructure for automating, monitoring and verifying transactions, and this promises to facilitate the monetisation and marketisation of all things networked. It is no surprise then that the sponsor of the most recent Ethereum London Meetup was speaking to the room when he said, “We can make finance great again!”
While the technical protocol is now well described, conversations about blockchain’s transformative potential beyond FinTech are yet to attract the same level of debate and development within other sectors – let alone connect with a wider public. This is a problem because technologies develop to reflect the interests of those who develop them. Artists can help here.
Ascribe and Monegraph both look to build the market place for digital art by offering platforms that allow artists and collectors to prove that they own original digital art assets. They use blockchain to determine and track provenance without restricting the circulation of the artworks.
Perhaps more importantly though, an active community of artists, technologists and activists are asking questions and developing critical practices around blockchain’s potential. These can transform our approach to contemporary economic and social challenges.
It may be surprising to some to find artists central to projects such as D-Cent and FairCoop, the blockchain-based tools for enhanced democracy. However, artists have worked with computing and communication infrastructures for as long as they have been in existence.
They created software to craft experiences and relationships, pre-empting developments in the social web by 10 years. Audiences for early Net Art became participants in and co-creators of distributed online artworks, making really strong user interfaces to engage people. The new social relations were integral to the aesthetics and message of their work.
When artists use new technologies as their materials, a number of things happen:
- They discover ways to extend the expressive and communicative range of tools, devices and systems
- By making connections that are neither necessarily utilitarian nor profitable, they explore potential for diverse human interest and experience
- They do the cognitive work to make difficult abstractions more legible and fascinating.
For instance Plantoid, a blockchain based artwork by Okhaos is a metal sculpture. It is powered by a blockchain-based smart contract that, when tipped with bitcoin by gallery visitors, will trigger the commission of another artwork.
Rob Myers’ Facecoin is an artwork and altcoin. Data visualisations of real-time bitcoin hashes are searched by facial recognition software. It generates portraits as proof of aesthetic work, or ‘Proof of Face’ as Stephan Tual (Slock.it) notes. This work provokes dialogues about value and values because the algorithm decides what constitutes the ‘portrait’.
The promise of blockchain as a medium, metaphor and distribution platform for these artists is as a decentralised co-ordination technology; allowing people to bypass intermediaries, to organise and co-operate peer-to-peer. At scale, it can help form organisations, products and communities; prompting people to co-create an Internet of Values.
Ruth Catlow is Co-founder and Director of Furtherfield, an arts led organisation for art shows, labs and debates around critical questions in arts, technology and society. Furtherfield’s Art Data Money programme seeks to develop new economies for arts in the network age. You can follow them on Twitter @furtherfield. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult.